So there were these two famous TV producers. One was a forward-thinking, anti-racist and pro-feminist champion of the arts. The other was a conservative, dishonest, misogynist anti-LGBT creep who constantly abused his position of power. And somehow, in the years since they have been gone, a mythology has sprung up around each of them that is not only in wilful denial of the facts but defines each one as a character in almost perfect opposition of who they truly were. It’s an illustration of how badly people need things to be a certain way… to the point where they’re willing to bend history to fit that version. It’s a story of how much we need people to be heroes and villains, I think… and also of the old journalist’s trope, “If you have a choice between fact and legend, print the legend.”
Let me walk you through it. We’ll start with conservative icon Jack Webb… you know, the hard-line cop Joe Friday from Dragnet.
Now, I’ll grant you, Webb was not a groovy liberal hippie. His body of work in television is mostly police procedurals. Dragnet, Adam-12, O’Hara U.S. Treasury, and tangentially shows like Emergency!… all of which can be seen as celebrations of the status quo.
I don’t contest that. Webb genuinely believed in America and he put it in the work, particularly Dragnet. But it was nuanced. Here he is telling off a group of anarchist rebel types… about how dropping out isn’t the answer, stepping up and fixing things is the answer.
You’ll find it on YouTube as “Joe Friday lectures libertarian jerks” but this exact same scene is also often touted by the right as “Joe Friday tells off idiot protestors,” or somesuch. But watch it and you’ll see it’s not really either one. It’s a genuinely moderate perspective, and a plea for tolerance. Actually listen to what he’s saying. Friday doesn’t want to throw the book at these kids or lock them up forever. It’s not punitive. No matter how many right-wing bloggers tell you otherwise, the scene is not about siddown and shut up, you librul hippie punks. No, Friday and Gannon are telling them to take their anger and energy and apply it to making real change. Honestly, the depressing thing about this scene is how much ground we’ve lost since then.
Even better is this one, where Joe Friday makes it very clear that he does not consider the police to have common cause with right-wing militias or John Birchers or any of those guys.
He straight-up calls them Nazis, which was a deadly insult back then. World War II was only two decades in the past when this was made, with the national trauma as fresh in the minds of Americans as 9/11 is for us today.
Absolutely, Jack Webb supported the police… but as an ideal, an institution.
And he certainly had a sense of humor about what he was doing.
Although, really, Webb’s passion wasn’t for law and order. It was for jazz.
His Pete Kelly’s Blues predates Dragnet, even.
In fact, Webb married jazz singer Julie London.
It didn’t work out, but he wasn’t bitter over it. He eventually cast her in Emergency! and gave her a whole second career when her musical one was winding down.
By then she had remarried, and Webb was cool enough with it he cast her husband on the show as well.
…but then, Jack Webb always had a soft spot for musicians, and Bobby Troup was the guy that wrote “Route 66.”
Now, I’ll grant you there’s a lot of preachy stuff on Dragnet that hasn’t aged well. This is probably one of the most jeered-at clips on the internet and justifiably so.
But even there his heart’s in the right place. Friday’s contempt isn’t for the kids taking drugs, it’s reserved for the predatory types pushing them.
As Friday himself always said, “just the facts.” And the facts are that Jack Webb and his body of work just aren’t the crypto-fascist wet dream they’re usually dismissed as.
On the other hand, the TV producer held up as a progressive liberal icon is not that at all when you actually look at his life and body of work.
The image of Gene Roddenberry as a brilliant, visionary free-thinker is largely manufactured…. in no small part by Roddenberry himself. His mythology began with the incredibly self-serving book The Making of Star Trek… a book he’s credited with co-authoring, though it was actually Stephen Poe (under the name Stephen E. Whitfield) that did the heavy lifting.
It certainly wasn’t the first time Roddenberry stole credit from someone else to cut himself in on some cash. He managed to weasel his way into Alexander Courage’s music royalties on Star Trek‘s theme song by writing lyrics that, even though they were never used, nevertheless legally entitled him to fifty percent. He constantly misrepresented his own contribution to Star Trek scripts, most famously with Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” but he bigfooted Trek writers all the time.
Moreover, a lot of the things cited as being very progressive and cutting-edge from the original Star Trek generally aren’t, when you really look at them. Nichelle Nichols loves to tell the story of how Martin Luther King persuaded her to stay with the show because it showed a black woman as a bridge officer on a starship.
But that’s not really why Nichols was there… or at least, it wasn’t the only reason. No, Roddenberry was using his clout on Star Trek to get laid. His casting couch policy was an open secret at Desilu. He was a serial philanderer, cheating on his first wife Eileen with Majel Barrett…
…who he rewarded by casting first as Number One in “The Cage” and then as Nurse Chapel when the series was picked up. He did eventually marry her but he cheated on her repeatedly, including with the aforementioned Nichelle Nichols, who’d first begun the affair when she was a guest on The Lieutenant.
Roddenberry basically rewarded her with the part of Uhura, as well. He had a habit of casting actresses he was hoping to go to bed with, or had been to bed with. For a while he was carrying on with both Barrett and Nichols, trying to persuade them to enter into an open relationship… this was while he was still married to his first wife Eileen. But Nichols bowed out because she didn’t want to be “the other woman to the other woman,” which gives you some idea of what a horndog Roddenberry really was. As far as the actual roles went, neither Uhura nor Chapel ever got to be shown as genuinely competent and capable until the animated episode “The Lorelei Signal.”
The fact of the matter was that Roddenberry’s freethinking liberal attitude was about as feminist as Hugh Hefner’s brand of fake feminism, which can be summed up as I have the freedom to sleep with whoever, and the ladies have the freedom to say yes, sex is a beautiful natural thing, it’s all good right baby?
Roddenberry wasn’t nearly as liberal about letting the women say no, though, as Grace Lee Whitney found out when he raped her.
Whitney’s harrowing account of the incident is in her memoirs. Though she didn’t name the ‘powerful producer’ in her book, it’s been confirmed since her death that it was Roddenberry.
Then there was Roddenberry’s affair with his assistant Susan Sackett that lasted a decade and a half. Another open secret that finally made it into a memoir.
Even putting aside Roddenberry’s creepy sexual harassment power games, his casting-couch hiring policy and his occasional out-and-out sexual assaults aside, he was also just a shitty, insecure boss. Dorothy Fontana, Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison, and many others had stories of credit stolen and promises broken. Not rumors or innuendo, but documented in print going back forty years and more. The Next Generation was lifted pretty much bodily from David Gerrold’s speculation about how to revive the show in his book The World of Star Trek, which led to him getting the assignment to write the series bible…. and subsequently his walking away from the show, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties, when Roddenberry screwed him again.
So what? some of you are saying. Dashiell Hammett was just as horrible to women and a mean drunk besides, but that doesn’t negate what he gave us, we still have Sam Spade and the Continental Op and Nick and Nora Charles. Hemingway was an awful person but his books are still genius. Lots of writers can’t live up to their fiction. We still have Star Trek and that’s Gene Roddenberry. What’s your point?
Well, I’m getting there. Here’s part of it. There’s a thing Trek fans talk about once in a while, a phenomenon known as “Kirk drift.” Which is to say, for years it’s been understood that James T. Kirk is a horny, impulsive cowboy, a shoot-first-details-later kind of starship captain, and that’s how he has been portrayed in the new movies.
But he’s really not. Not originally, anyway. Throughout the first season of Star Trek, James Kirk is shown to be a bit of a stiff. “A stack of books with legs,” is how he recalls his Starfleet Academy years in “Shore Leave,” an episode where Dr. McCoy has to ORDER his captain to stop working and go planetside to relax, and also the one wherein we find out that an upperclassman named Finnegan tormented Kirk relentlessly at the Academy for being a giant nerd. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” Gary Mitchell reveals how he had to resort to trickery to make it through Kirk’s class back in the day, because the class was so hard and Kirk was so strict.
As for the skirt-chasing? A great many of the infamous womanizing scenes featuring Kirk in the original show were actually either calculated, a ploy to gain an advantage– as with Lenore Karidian, the sorceress Sylvia, et al– or else the product of alien influence or mind control, such as Elaan of Troyius or the witch Nona. Take those off the table and we see a man of deep feelings with no fear of commitment. Look at the way he is with Edith Keeler, Miramanee (who he actually married), Carol Marcus, and so on. Even the flings– like, say, Areel Shaw from “Court Martial” — are handled in a respectful and adult context. He’s not some reckless frat boy.
But over a half-century of fan in-jokes and parodies and whatnot, the perception of Captain Kirk has, well, drifted.
Which is how you get to the Chris Pine version.
But here’s my point– I think you can also apply that drift to the legend of Gene Roddenberry, and in particular, to the legend of the original Star Trek, as well. Never mind what an awful person Roddenberry was– let’s actually look at Star Trek‘s vaunted progressive philosophy, as demonstrated on screen.
For decades, it’s been an article of faith that the original Star Trek was an amazingly progressive, idealist undertaking, attempting to show the best of humanity in a turbulent world that desperately needed that message, an artistic milestone tragically canceled before its time by people who didn’t understand what it was trying to do. It’s baked into the premise of the show– on Star Trek it’s understood that in the 23rd century, we have solved all our problems, there’s no war, no poverty, everyone’s happy and does only what fulfills them. We’re told this MANY times. Respect for all beings. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Etc.
Okay. Then why is everyone on the Enterprise so obsessed with everyone having a job?
Over and over, we are shown that dropping out of society and being happy is no way to live, son.
In “This Side of Paradise” humans are offered perfect health in a utopian setting, as long as they surrender themselves to the benefits of an alien spore. It even protects them from the Berthold rays that would otherwise be lethal. There’s no downside to this arrangement.
Kirk and his crew wreck it anyway. Because the colonists are not producing, they’re not building anything. Hell with that. No paradise for you.
Even worse is “The Apple,” where Kirk decides to deliberately violate the non-interference directive and destroy an entire alien civilization, because the whole population is too damn happy and the only thing they work at is an hour or so a day providing for the computer that serves their needs. Needs like, y’know, food and shelter. What, an idyllic paradise and no labor involved? Fuck that noise. These people need to work for a living. Are the crew of the Enterprise at least going to stick around and help this society once they’ve destroyed the computer-god Vaal– again, in violation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive– that provided everything for the native population? No. “You’ll figure it out.”
Even when Kirk and his crew are sent to find a guy who’s been violating the Prime Directive, they end up interfering even more. Like when Kirk lectures the primitives on how they’re doing America all wrong in “The Omega Glory.”
Remember, this is the sacred ritual of the natives. Sure, Kirk is the good guy, his intentions are good, but it’s still no different than standing up in the middle of Mass and screaming at the priest that he’s completely screwing it up.
One of the most egregious examples of the whole get-a-job-ya-hippie philosophy was the episode “The Way to Eden.” The one with actual space hippies. They find Eden, sure…
…but, HA HA EVERYTHING’S POISON HERE suck on that ya pack of shiftless punks. Because God forbid a group of young people who just want to live and raise their families and be left alone be allowed to do so. And by the way? Doesn’t starting a colony from scratch, even on a planetary Eden, actually involve a fuckton of work? All the hippies asked for was help finding the place; they weren’t asking the Federation to actually build the settlement for them. They were going to do that themselves. Their leader, Sevrin, was definitely damaged goods and a ruthless psychopath (A bald Charles Manson with big ears) but the GROUP goal was sound. They believed Sevrin and picked the wrong planet, that’s all. Even Kirk kind of has to admit it by the end of the episode, but it’s very grudging.
It wasn’t just Starfleet, though. Other alien cultures were just as weirdly right-wing in their views. Like the Vians in “The Empath,” who have the advanced technology sufficient to save a doomed race… but ONLY if those welfare queens can prove they deserve the help.
This is perfectly all right with Starfleet once it’s explained, by the way, even after two Federation scientists have been murdered and both Kirk and McCoy have been ruthlessly tortured. Oh, it’s about making sure primitive aliens deserve help? Sure, we get it. Carry on.
Yes, the original Trek was racially diverse in its casting. But it was also incredibly colonialist and condescending when it came to depicting other cultures.
“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is often mentioned as an example of how Trek took on the hard issues like race relations… But have you actually watched it recently?
There’s a really condescending tone in the way Spock and Kirk lecture both Bele and Lokai about racism, and even though they try to bring Bele to a more ‘evolved’ viewpoint there’s no question that they side with him. The whole thing is very pro-police, with a side of ‘all lives matter.’
This carried through to The Next Generation as well, especially in its early seasons.
As for the show’s vaunted feminism? How did that play out on screen? Uhura was a bridge officer, a lieutenant, a gifted linguist and enough of an electronics expert to rewire her entire station at need. But that’s not what we saw. Mostly, apart from opening hailing frequencies, when she has a line it’s to tell us she’s frightened. Likewise Christine Chapel, despite being a valued xenomedical officer in sickbay, mostly is there to pine after Mr. Spock. The other women on the Enterprise rarely are allowed to actually bear up under their responsibility. They have breakdowns, they’re too emotional, they fall helplessly in love with Greek gods or genetic supermen and betray the ship. And let’s not forget Roddenberry’s own “Turnabout Intruder,” wherein it’s made clear women simply aren’t fit for command, period.
Or another Roddenberry outing, “Bread and Circuses,” where the faux-Roman consul provides Kirk with a sex slave for the night, because he respects Kirk’s manliness.
That’s not feminism, that’s more Hefner bullshit. Sex is a beautiful thing and we should all be having it, baby. When Roddenberry was doing Next Generation without having to worry about network interference it got even more blatant.
Writer Melinda Snodgrass has said in interviews that one of the directives the writers got from Roddenberry on Next Gen was “LET THEM FUCK!” Which they totally did.
Even the android Data got some action.
And speaking of Tasha Yar, can we talk a little bit about how badly her character was treated? She was supposed to be the ultracompetent security officer, the most dangerous person on the ship, respected as a warrior by even the Klingon Worf. But in the first regular episode she bones the android in a scene straight out of Penthouse Forum and in the following episode she’s taken for a concubine by a head of state the Federation is scared of offending.
We’re told she was rescued from a planet where she grew up as an orphaned refugee who learned to defend herself in a savage environment plagued with “rape gangs.” From what we see her do on the show, though, a lot of that defense seems rooted in the classic abuse victim’s tactic of going along with her abuser to keep the peace. Certainly, not even in the climactic duel of “Code of Honor,” do we ever get the sense of Yar as dangerous. It’s no wonder Denise Crosby got fed up and left.
I could go on. There’s a lot of stuff in the original Trek and even early seasons of Next Generation that is cringeworthy. Sure, some of it’s the natural consequence of when it was made. But a lot of it–and I’d even go so far as to say the worst of it–is from the edicts Roddenberry laid down. When you compare it to the romantic view fans have of Gene Roddenberry as a visionary, there’s just a huge needle-scratch moment of “Wait, but that’s not…” And it’s impossible to un-see once you find out who the guy really was.
Which leads me to wonder why in the world fans are so defensive about it. I mean, you see it with the way comics people mythologize Stan Lee and the Marvel bullpen, or Buffy and Firefly fans do with Joss Whedon, but the Roddenberry worship is in a league of its own.
There are even fan films about how he was destined to give us Star Trek. Like a prophet or something.
Looking over all of the above, it’s coming off harsher than I mean it to be. (Well, at least about the show; I do think Gene Roddenberry was a contemptible person that leveraged fan worship into a side hustle that slowly became his main hustle.)
But truly I say all of this as someone who has loved every iteration of Star Trek from the sixties to today, even Voyager and Enterprise. We are all in on Discovery. We liked Picard. We saw Lower Decks just this morning and adored it. But I don’t think it is any disservice to the franchise to be truthful about it.
The original show that everyone loved started with Gene Roddenberry. That’s undeniable. But it was loved primarily because of the refinements brought to it later by Gene Coon, Dorothy Fontana, and Leonard Nimoy, with additional important contributions from David Gerrold, Stephen Kandel, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison. Tribbles, Sarek and Amanda, Klingons, Harry Mudd, Edith Keeler and the Guardian of Forever, Vulcan culture and T’Pau and all of that stuff, none of that was Roddenberry. In particular, a lot of the episodes people remember as being so wonderful, when the original show was swinging for the fences (according to David Gerrold and William Shatner) only happened because Gene Coon was producing and Roddenberry had stepped back. According to the people that were there, once the production was up and running, Roddenberry was more hindrance than help. Same goes for Next Generation. I’m not sure Deep Space Nine would even have been POSSIBLE when he was active in the production process… And that’s the show most often cited as the peak achievement of the franchise. Likewise, the most beloved of the movies, Wrath of Khan, came about only after the studio booted Roddenberry OFF the project.
I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. Maybe just that we already have established Star Trek as American folklore. Dragnet too, for that matter. Those are remarkable achievements. That should be enough. There’s no need to layer on a lot of other made-up stuff about the shows or the people that made them.
In other words, we’re all best served by just sticking to the facts, ma’am.
Yep, can’t argue with anything here. I watched Dragnet as a youngun’ and a lot of Adam-12 and Emergency and yeah, authority is good; but, they were pretty middle of the road, politically, rule of law, make a positive contribution and all that. In other words, good, strong, civic values. No, it wasn’t a progressive utopia; but, it wasn’t a fascist nightmare, either.
By the same token, Trek was hardly that enlightened, depending on the writer and not all that Utopian. Part of the problem is that people tend to look back on it as if it was planned, rather than evolved as new scripts added new wrinkles. The Prime Directive was a joke. IDIC is presented as an idea in an episode, not a concept throughout.
This is one of the reasons why I was drawn more to Babylon 5, rather than later Trek. I never really got into Next Gen and subsequent series didn’t thrill me, either. B5 played more to my sensibilities and I preferred the idea that mankind still had the same failings in the 23rd Century, even as he improved some elements. Racial issues among humans weren’t so much a thing; but, alien races? Well, they aren’t human and have strange ways. Economic divisions continued and there were plenty of people exploiting the masses for a quick profit. Drug abuse is a problem; we just got new drugs. Alcohol is still a problem, self-esteem issues are a problem; xenophobia, sexism, insecurity, irrational fear, etc. Still, mankind strove to find a way forward and grow. There was the harsh reality and still a hope of doing better. JMS wasn’t exactly an altar boy, either, as he and Pat Tallman had a relationship, that sounded like was happening while he was still married. People are human, though Roddenberry is more the great birdshit of the galaxy. Genesis II carried some of the same negative elements within it, in its several forms, especially the portrayal of female characters. Roddenberry was no Brian Clemens, of Avengers fame.
While I agree with most of this, “This Side of Paradise” is hardly offering utopia. The colonists have no qualms about seeding the Enterprise crew without giving them a choice. And while they’re happy, it seems to be the same way “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” pod people are calm and pleasant (the episode feels very much like a reworking of the movie).
Yeah, I tend to agree with Fraser’s assessment of ‘This Side of Paradise.’ The comparison to Invasion of the Bodysnatchers seems quite apropos.
Otherwise, though, I can say I only found one thing in this column objectionable, and that’s the “(…) even Voyager” quip. Like you have to apologize for liking Voyager…
I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Dragnet so I can’t really say much about that. I do remember laughing at the acting but that is about it.
As far as Roddenberry is concerned, while I’m not sure about Kirk drift, I think everyone pretty much agrees that Roddenberry was a bad person and ended up hurting more than he helped.
I wonder if the dedicated fans really still hold up Roddenberry or even Stan Lee or Joss Whedon. We know Roddenberry’s philandering and how he hindered things. We know Stan Lee’s art partners were just as if not more important than Lee. I’ve never been a Whedon fan but his status has also taken a big tumble and his “feminism” has not aged well.
The general public, though, may still think highly of them – Stan Lee especially because of his cameos in films. So what to do? Do we tell them “you’ve got it all wrong!” or do we just let it go because these people don’t really care about the material as much as we do and so it doesn’t matter all that much?
I don’t actually have an answer to that. I guess it’s when they get elevated to godhood that it bothers me. There’s almost an entire industry devoted to worshiping at the altar of Gene Roddenberry, especially in print, and he was perfectly willing to milk that. Part of it was that he couldn’t get other stuff looked at, but I think a lot of it was believing his own press. When Next Generation was getting up on its feet is when everyone working with him realized he was a liar and a cheat, and the myth they’d bought into was simply not true…. that is, everyone but Roddenberry. A lot of the strife came from his bigfooting writers over stuff that he proclaimed “wasn’t Star Trek,” and he’d use that as an argument-ender.
But in the time between when Roddenberry originally turned over production to Gene Coon and Star Trek The Motion Picture, which was a little over a decade, the show– rather, the concept itself– had been claimed by the fans. Star Trek made it from 1969 to 1979 largely as a fan thing, and people slowly realized that NEW stuff had a market. But it was still seen as a niche thing, strictly for the faithful. Roddenberry and the cast were surviving on the convention circuit for the most part, and getting a bunch of smoke blown up their asses about how ahead of its time the original Trek was. This really skewed how people remembered the show… even for the people MAKING it.
You look at that first movie and a lot of it– a LOT of it– is Roddenberry doing shout-outs to the fan questions at conventions. More real science, why isn’t Chapel a doctor, and so on and so on. He even used fans as extras in the big rec room briefing scene. That whole movie is a giant example of what happens when you let the audience lead you instead of the other way around. It was about validating both himself and the worshipful audience who kept telling him he was a brilliant futurist. He’d forgotten that Star Trek had its finest hour when it told individual people stories in the style of a naval adventure. He himself used to call it “Hornblower in space,” but he forgot that because people had been hailing him as a visionary genius for a decade.
It’s a powerful drug. Adulation is probably the easiest thing a human gets addicted to. David Gerrold has said in several places that “Gene was not a great man. He was a guy doing an impression of a great man.” He’s also said, “Gene was beloved by everyone… except the people who actually had to work with him.” He was there from 1967 on, so he’d know.
Star Trek has become almost a Rorschach test for people, they find their own things in it. The franchise has become big enough to accommodate that. That’s what I mean by drift. But that also makes fans easy targets for con men with no qualms about exploiting that and I think Roddenberry was one of those.
Webb had a wild sense of humor and his earliest surviving recordings (for a local comedy skit show at the start of his career) show a mind that would have been perfectly at home working on MAD Magazine (which Webb adored when it was published years later).
He’s best known for Dragnet but as you note, Pete Kelly’s Blues was where his heart really resided. However, many old time radio fans swear by his hard boiled send-up Pat Novak, For Hire which did a perfect straight faced send up of the genre that only broke down and revealed the joke in the very last episode.
Track his radio shows down on the Internet Archive — they’re worth it!
Excellent column, Greg!
Please forgive me for being so late to the party, but exactly when and where was it confirmed that Roddenberry was Grace Lee Whitney’s rapist? I theorized on here myself that it was GR, but my case was largely circumstantial. I just realized that Roddenberry was the most likely suspect when the detail of GLW’s rapist giving her a polished stone by way of apology stuck out at me, as the book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story revealed that polishing stones was a longtime hobby of Roddenberry’s.
I’d resigned myself to the fact that we’d never know the real truth, as Whitney, Roddenberry, and Whitney’s confidant Leonard Nimoy are all gone now, but if it’s actually been confirmed somewhere that it was Roddenberry, I’d be very interested in reading that.